Nessel declines GOP request to probe Michigan COVID nursing home deaths

FILE - In this March 5, 2020, file photo, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks during a news conference in Lansing, Mich. Nessel has charged seven people with plotting to target law enforcement and attack state Capitol building. The announcement comes after six others were charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her vacation home in reaction to what they viewed as her "uncontrolled power," according to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday , Oct. 8, 2020, in federal court. (AP Photo/David Eggert, File)
FILE - In this March 5, 2020, file photo, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks during a news conference in Lansing, Mich. Nessel has charged seven people with plotting to target law enforcement and attack state Capitol building. The announcement comes after six others were charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her vacation home in reaction to what they viewed as her "uncontrolled power," according to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday , Oct. 8, 2020, in federal court. (AP Photo/David Eggert, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Monday declined Republicans' request to investigate whether nursing home orders issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer led to COVID-19 deaths or if related data is inaccurate, citing a lack of evidence that any law was violated.

There are allegations that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration falsified figures to downplay deaths in nursing homes.

“But the situation here is completely different,” Nessel, a Democrat, wrote to Sen. Jim Runestad, who had asked for an investigation along with seven other GOP senators. “I am aware that Gov. Whitmer's office complied with the (Department of Justice) information request and have no reason to doubt the accuracy of that response — much less suspect intentional misrepresentations within that response.”

Republicans have faulted the Democratic governor for letting recovering COVID-19 patients be admitted or readmitted to nursing homes from hospitals or other nursing homes, potentially putting other residents at risk. The Whitmer administration has said her orders, which — among other things — required the creation of dedicated coronavirus units within certain nursing homes and established regional “hub” homes with COVID-19 wings, followed federal guidance.

Nessel said suggesting that public health policy decisions by themselves should be investigated because different approaches could have resulted in fewer deaths is “inappropriate” and violates ethical guidelines.

Runestad accused the attorney general of abdicating her responsibility and said legislative committees had been unable to get data from the state.

“Families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 in nursing homes deserve to get answers. And just like the Whitmer administration, today the office of the Democratic attorney general let those families down," he said in a statement.

Whitmer, like Cuomo and some other governors in initial coronavirus hot spots where there were concerns about hospitals being overrun, ordered last spring that nursing homes not prohibit the admission or readmission of a resident based on COVID-19 testing results. Her administration has told the Justice Department and legislators, however, that the policy never went into effect because the health department did not issue related guidance due to nursing homes’ concerns.

Nessel said she appreciated that lawmakers have policy disagreements with Whitmer's pandemic response.

“Though I will not hesitate to act when justified, I also will not abuse the investigatory powers of this department to launch a political attack on any state official, regardless of party or beliefs," she wrote.

That statement prompted criticism on social media from Republicans who contend her office's prosecution of Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder and other ex-officials for Flint's water crisis is politically motivated.

In New York, state Attorney General Letitia James has been investigating nursing homes based on neglect allegations and noncompliance with infection-control protocols. She released a January report charging that the death toll reported by the administration of Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, could be off by about 50% because it was one of the only states to count just those who died on facility grounds, not those who later died in the hospital.

In August, the Justice Department sent letters to four Democratic governors — including Whitmer — seeking information on their nursing home orders. She called it “nothing more than a transparent politicization” of the department in an election year.

The Justice Department has declined to comment further.

Under a policy change and subsequent bipartisan law enacted in the fall, 18 “care and recovery centers” within nursing homes have been designated for people with COVID-19. Some former hub homes no longer met criteria due to lower staffing ratings or abuse or neglect citations.

Hundreds of other nursing homes can still retain or admit infected residents because they have a designated area for them, typically in the same building.

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